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Fired Teacher Faces Trial Over Alleged Attacks on 3 Women : Courts: School didn’t know of previous investigation of the suspect while he was with the Sheriff’s Department.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Edward Keith Culhane applied for a teaching job at a local elementary school, he was portrayed as a decorated Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy who retired in 1991 because of a work-related injury.

But unknown to his potential employer, Culhane was also under investigation for allegedly raping a 17-year-old girl, as well as other incidents of sexual misconduct allegedly occurring between 1989 and 1991, sheriff’s officials said.

Sheriff’s Department policy kept them from disclosing the information to Saugus Union School District officials, who hired him in 1993 to teach fifth-grade students.

Now, Culhane, 35, is charged with sexually assaulting a female teacher in a classroom at Santa Clarita Elementary School during his first semester. He denies that charge, as well as several others pending against him.

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Sheriff’s officials say they are not at fault but were trapped in a Catch-22. They say they could not reveal unsubstantiated allegations against Culhane, and because of department regulations they could not complete an internal investigation of him after he resigned, said Sgt. Larry Lincoln, a department spokesman.

“There were allegations of alleged sexual misconduct, but not enough to substantiate a criminal investigation, so the Sheriff’s Department initiated an administrative investigation,” Lincoln said. “As a result of our findings, then-Deputy Culhane decided to resign in lieu of any department discipline.”

Lack of evidence--primarily, the alleged victim was reluctant to testify--kept sheriff’s officials from seeking criminal charges, investigators said.

But when the allegations involving the teacher came to light, the 17-year-old victim, and a 19-year-old woman also claiming to have been sexually assaulted by Culhane, came forward.

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After a preliminary hearing in Newhall Municipal Court, Culhane was ordered last week to stand trial on charges that he attacked all three women.

His attorney, Kenneth Schreiber, said the Sheriff’s Department investigated previous complaints, but no criminal charges were ever filed.

He said the district attorney’s office is resurrecting the charges in the hope that the more accusations against Culhane, the more likely a jury will convict him.

“The reason they didn’t prosecute him (before) was they didn’t have enough evidence,” Schreiber said. “They don’t have enough evidence now.”

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Culhane, described as mild-mannered, befriended the three women before the alleged assaults, according to sheriff’s investigators who testified at the preliminary hearing.

Officers testified that in 1990 Culhane offered to help the 17-year-old victim with an English paper after he pulled her car over in Lennox. Culhane then had breakfast with her about a week later and committed the alleged assault about a week after that, according to the officers’ testimony.

Another woman, then 19, claims Culhane fondled and kissed her while she was baby-sitting at his home in 1992.

The teacher testified at last week’s hearing that Culhane removed some of her clothing and fondled her last November when she went to his classroom after school to get a map.

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Culhane was a deputy from January, 1982, until August, 1991, retiring because of an on-duty auto accident, according to Schreiber and other officials. Sheriff’s officials acknowledge a retirement settlement was paid to Culhane because of the injury, but they dispute claims that is the only reason he retired.

Many of Culhane’s former co-workers at the Sheriff’s Department said they had suspicions about his behavior, but none wanted their names used.

“You can’t put your finger on it, but it’s one of those feelings you have,” said one deputy who worked with Culhane at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station.

Most of the complaints against Culhane when he was with the Sheriff’s Department were less serious allegations than rape, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Foltz, who is prosecuting Culhane. But the complaints were never resolved because of Culhane’s retirement.

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“There were a lot of them where he was coming on to people, trying to make dates with them, but it never got to physical contact,” Foltz said.

Every complaint filed against a deputy goes into his personnel file, according to sheriff’s officials. But the department will not release information about complaints unless they have been investigated and the deputy has been disciplined as a result.

“Typically all we ever tell anyone is so-and-so worked here at such and such a time, and he resigned for personal reasons with the rank of deputy or whatever,” said Jeff Hauptman, director of personnel administration for the Sheriff’s Department.

An employer or other interested party can also obtain information if the deputy has signed a release permitting it, Hauptman said.

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Culhane was hired to teach at Santa Clarita Elementary School in part because school officials heard about commendations Culhane had received from the Sheriff’s Department and Pepperdine University, where he was a student teacher, said Troy Bramlett, superintendent of the Saugus Union School District.

But, Bramlett said, the district knew none of the suspicions of improper conduct while Culhane was a sheriff’s deputy.

Nothing was questionable about Culhane’s retirement because the auto accident certified Culhane’s claim that he left because he was injured, Bramlett added.

“There wasn’t anything that would raise a red flag,” Bramlett said.

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Culhane was fired by the district on July 1, Bramlett said.

Even if he is found innocent, Bramlett said, the district is not obligated to reinstate him because Culhane does not have tenure.


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